The Council of the European Union has announced that it will be extending sanctions against Belarus for another year–until October 2014. A total of 232 persons and 25 entities remain subject to EU sanctions, namely, a travel ban and freeze of assets. The decision has been made “because not all political prisoners have been released, no released prisoner has been rehabilitated and the respect for human rights, the rule of law and democratic principles has not improved,” the Council explained. Meanwhile, the Belarusian regime has panned the decision, calling it counter-productive…
The overall number of sanctions has decreased, in spite of the extension, with the total number of companies subject to the EU sanctions has been reduced to 25, and thirteen people have been removed from the travel blacklist. When sanctions were extended this time last year, on similar grounds, they then applied to 243 people and 32 firms. However, according to the spokesman for the Belarusian Foreign Ministry Andrei Savinykh, the sanctions should be removed altogether, saying:
“We are observing a downward trend in sanctions. This is a positive step. In general the EU decision is counterproductive. These sanctions do not have any prospects and should be completely lifted. The sanctions cannot be a basis for partnership serving the interests of the citizens of Belarus and the EU.”
“It’s impossible to build partner relations for the benefit of citizens of Belarus and EU on the basis os sanctions”. Andrei Savinykh
— Belarus MFA (@BelarusMFA) October 30, 2013
The decision to extend the sanctions, including the travel ban for some, comes just before Belarus is due to attend the Eastern Partnership summit in neighbouring Lithuania. In fact there was speculation that blacklisted President Alexander Lukashenko could even be in attendance–an unprecedented occurrence should rumour have become fact. With the extensions, however, this seems to close the book on any further speculation about Lukashenko’s attendance. In June, the EU lifted a travel ban on Belarusian Foreign Minister Uladzimir Makey in order to “facilitate diplomatic contacts”–allowing for a partial unfreezing of relations between the EU and Belarus.
— Horia-Victor Lefter (@horia_victor) October 31, 2013
But what of other forms of Belarusian representation at the summit? Many have argued that Belarus’ interest in the EaP is ultimately minimal, as it begins to integrate more with Russia’s Eurasian Union. As Belarus has recently stated that restoring EU-Belarus relations is important, but it is not a crucial priority for the country. Then again, at a press conference last week, Belarusian President Lukashenko told Russian journalists that Belarus was not negotiating with the European Union ‘because no one wants to talk to us anyway’.
— Belarus Freedom News (@Belarus_2011) October 30, 2013
In spite of this, experts are saying that whether Belarus attends the EaP Summit next month or not is immaterial:
“Belarus will continue to ignore the basic EU requirements for the normalisation of relations. Even if the Belarusian delegation takes part in the Vilnius Summit, there will be no significant breakthroughs in Belarus-EU relations.”
The EU has defended its decision to sanction Belarus, in spite of debate about its efficacy, saying:
“The EU has consistently called for the immediate release and rehabilitation of all political prisoners. It has also repeatedly stressed that all harassment of members of the opposition, and of civil society must stop and the repressive policies must be rolled back. The EU’s restrictive measures are an important instrument to maintain political pressure on Belarus. The EU has repeatedly stressed that the EU policy of restrictive measures remains under constant review. In January 2011, the Council decided to target those responsible for violation of international electoral standards in the residential elections or the crackdown on civil society and the democratic opposition.”
There is an important distinction, however, which the EU has tried to stress:
“To make it clear that the EU’s policies are not directed against Belarus as such, nor against its population, the EU has, in parallel, strengthened its engagement with civil society, the political opposition and the public at large.”
Have the sanctions helped?